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Monday 18th June 2018

What is good and what is bad for us?

6th May 2009

Professor of risk understanding at Cambridge University, David Spiegelhalter, suggests even habits linked to risk can have benefits.


Advice from experts for over bowel cancer is to avoid processed meats such as bacon ham and salami. Equally, they warn women who are concerned over breast cancer that there is no level at which alcohol consumption is safe.

Such stories bring a predictable media response – The Sun produced the headline “Careless pork costs lives” while the Telegraph went down the nanny state route.

But with such health warnings having little influence on people’s behaviour, who is right – the public that ignores the warning or the epidemiologists giving out the advice.

I believe they both might be right.

If you do something you enjoy, despite the possibility of something bad occurring, then perhaps the risk it poses may still be worth taking.

For every 100 people eating bacon sandwiches, the number of bowel cancers may rise from five to six. But as The Sun puts it: "I would rather have the occasional bacon sarnie than be 110 and dribbling into my All-Bran".

While middle aged women giving up alcohol may reduce the breast cancer risk, it could increase the risk of other cancers or heart disease.

Such issues reflect a basic tension between an individual’s point of view and that of society.

But while an individual may be reaching for something deemed harmful, they may be gaining enjoyment. In terms of the wider picture, people need to be able to find their own balance.


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